What You Need to Know about the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF).


Since the beginning of this year, but primarily immediately and after President Obama’s speech about the administration’s planned shift of trajectory with regards to its counterterrorism strategy, the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) has been of great debate as a basis of not only the counterterrorism strategy but the basis in HOW that strategy will be implemented[i]. Essentially, this, among other laws and world events, is starting to change how the United States looks at threats, insinuating a difference between now and the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001.

For background, the AUMF is a joint resolution passed by Congress three days after September 11, 2001, which has served as the legal foundation for U.S. counterterrorism operations against those within al-Qaida who aided and abetted the terrorist attacks and those who continue to plan attacks against the U.S.  This too has been the underpinning of the drone campaigns in Pakistan and Yemen, which have essentially come under great scrutiny as many argue that the current targets[ii].

However, of concern, is that as the War on Terror has evolved, so has the shape and the threat of al-Qaeda.  Al-Qaeda as we knew it in 2001 is somewhat different now—the perpetrators of the September 11th attacks have been either captured or killed and the core of al-Qaeda has also changed drastically.  Yet, the core of al-Qaeda has expanded drastically to the point to where there are different franchises throughout the world, to include al-Qaeda in Iraq, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in the Maghreb and al-Shabaab[iii]. Other affiliated organizations such as Boko Haram in West Africa and the al-Nusrah Front based in Syria all stem from the same philosophy of the al-Qaeda we understood more than a decade ago[iv].

Yet, a very good debate is necessary to determine whether the AUMF is still needed and should be the basis for how we address countering further expansion of al-Qaeda.  For one, if the point of the AUMF was to go specifically after the perpetrators of 9/11, has that not already been accomplished?  This question is posed by many who believe that it is time to repeal or revise the AUMF as it currently stands. Particularly as the U.S. is drawing down its forces from Afghanistan in 2014, the AUMF as well should go away as Operation Enduring Freedom was one of the reasons for having AUMF in the first place.

Proponents of the AUMF, primarily that of the national security team within the Obama Administration, believe that the AUMF is applicable to its efforts to mitigate the threats brought by al-Qaeda and its affiliates.  Considering the fact that the AUMF authorizes the president to use “all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided” the Sept. 11 attacks, the remnants of this particular organization still remain and thus must be prevented from future attacks.

Considering the points made by each side, the question remains as to what should happen to the AUMF itself.  Should it be repealed, revised or should something entirely take its place?

To be sure, the AUMF is not the only way in which the Administration is able to prevent imminent terrorist attacks against U.S. interests abroad or on the Homeland.  Thus, this discussion is not to determine whether the Administration is allowed to protect US interests from terrorists actions, but a matter of what legal basis the US can actively pursue terrorists.

One primary basis in which to decide what to do with this current basis is to evaluate the nature of the terrorist threat that emanates from al-Qaeda and how it will be projected.  As mentioned above, it has expanded and the transnational threat itself has in some ways decreased but the localized threats are just as meaningful. If the group is to continue this trajectory, particularly as it continues to threat U.S. interests abroad, the AUMF should be modified.

While the future of this particular law will without doubt go through Congressional scrutiny over the next year, one point that should be made is that the rate of terrorist attacks should not necessarily be tied to the ability to mitigate it.  The nature of the direct threat and U.S. capabilities should be considered when reviewing and potentially revising this particular law.  But, most would agree, considering the changes in the global landscape, there should be a very close review of the AUMF as it is.

[i] “A counterterrorism law in need of updating” by John B. Bellinger, III,  Washington Post, November 26, 2010.  Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/11/25/AR2010112503116.html

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Head Of US Africa Command Warns Of Islamic Threat”, Donna Cassata, Associated Press, 15 March 2013

[iv] “U.S. Places Militant Syrian Rebel Group on List of Terrorist Organizations”,  by Michael R. Gordon and Anne Bernanrd, New York Times, 10 December 2012